Legalism, Grace, and Faith
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:28)
Even so faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:17)
Sadly, when we speak of obedience to God many people mistakenly think that we are teaching "legalism"--that one can be saved by doing good works. No, we believe and maintain that people are justified by faith apart from good works. There is nothing that we can do to earn salvation. Good works flow out of one's faith. Obedience is a result of a person's love for God; it is not an effort to earn salvation.
There are two beautiful truths balanced so wonderfully in Scripture, as indicated by the above two verses:
- No one can be saved by doing good works. Salvation comes through faith in Christ.
- Everyone who has been saved by faith will do good works.
Ephesians 2:8-10 describes it this way:
8 For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, so that no one should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
It is clear from verses 8 and 9 that salvation is something that God works in us by his grace; we do not earn it. This fact, however, does not mean that the believer is exempt from doing good works as verse 10 clearly indicates.
Scripture very plainly teaches that salvation is God's work and yet Christians also must "work". For example, Philippians 2:12-13 says:
12 Therefore my beloved as you have always obeyed...work out your own salvation in fear and trembling 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to do of his good pleasure.
Let us examine just a little about God's grace and faith and how they are at work in a believer. It is by grace through faith that we are able to obey God; clearly, this is not legalism.
As we have seen in the preceding Scriptures, grace has an integral part in one's salvation. Grace is not passive in the life of a Christian; it is not merely "unmerited favor", but it is much more than this. Yes, grace is undeserved; you cannot earn it. Grace is favor from God, but what does it do in the life of someone who by faith receives the grace? Titus 2:11-14 tells us that "the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age." God's grace teaches us to live self-controlled, godly lives "in this present age"--to obey him always, right now in this present age! God's grace does not simply forgive our sins and then cause God to overlook future sins. Rather, by grace God forgives us and then grace teaches us to change our ways and teaches us how to live. Praise God for his grace! Have you received the grace that is spoken of in the Bible or some other "grace" that deceitfully allows you to live for yourself in outright contradiction to the clear teachings of the Word of God?
Faith is a full trust, confidence and belief in God and his promises and, more specifically, that through the blood of Christ shed for us we can have our sins forgiven. True faith is a matter of the heart and it will always evidence itself by outward action--otherwise is not real faith and it cannot save you (James 2:14-26). This is very clearly taught in the book of Romans. In the introduction to the book of Romans, Paul writes that the purpose of his apostleship is to "call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith" (Romans 1:5). In the sixth chapter he refers to Christians as being slaves to obedience (Romans 6:16). He concludes the book of Romans similarly, stating that all nations are to "believe and obey [God]" (Romans 16:26). Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are armed with divine power to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). In addition he states that "keeping God's commands is what counts" (1 Cor. 7:19). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul's letters always included strong and clear exhortations of obedience to God.
The other Biblical authors echoed Paul's writings, since the same Spirit inspired them. Peter wrote that we have been chosen "for obedience to Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:2). The Apostle John wrote, "This is love for God: to obey his commands" (1 John 5:3). Truly, "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17). The Biblical authors were simply stating the truth as they had been taught by the Son of God himself: "If you love me you will obey what I command" (John 14:15, 21, 23).
Is It Legalism?
Is it legalism to teach that people who have saving faith will obey God? To teach that he will be our top priority, that everything will be counted a loss compared to Christ (Phil. 3:7-9)? Is it legalism to teach that because of God's mercy we choose to willingly offer our lives as living sacrifices for him (Rom. 12:1-2)? To teach that if you choose to be a Christian you will stop living for yourself, live for God, and become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:15, 17)? Is it really legalism to share with people the Biblical requirements of holiness (1 Peter 1:14-17)--that without it we will not see God (Heb. 12:14)? If so then Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, John and others would also need to be accused of legalism. However, so often this is what we hear: "You are being legalistic!"
How does our call to obedience differ from legalism? Simply put, legalism is a lifting up of a set of rules or laws, but obedience exalts God rather than the rules. A Christian doesn't obey God because of a set of rules that exist; rather, he obeys God because he loves God. Notice that all of the Scriptures that I have quoted imply an obedience proceeding from a heart (Matt. 12:33-37) full of love and faith toward God. Do I refrain from murdering and lying because the Bible says not to do such things? No, I refrain from wickedness because I love God and because I have faith in him. Why would I ever want to disobey him?
We often warn people who spend more time on entertainment than they do reading their Bibles. It is not that reading their Bibles will save them, but that those who have true saving faith will not want to be distracted from the Word of God. But oh, how few people take their "Christianity" seriously! Many people think they have experienced the grace of God but they live for themselves. Ask yourself: when you think about "free time" do you honestly use it for God's glory or for your own personal happiness?
Let's look at an example of how a Christian might consider use of his "free time". I do not have any rules that forbid my attendance at a basketball game and I do not believe that such a rule should be formulated or promoted. Rather, let us promote the love of God! If someone says in his heart truthfully before God, "I love God so much, my life is just consumed with him; what can I possibly do for my God tonight?" And if the best thing that that person can think of to glorify God is to attend a basketball game, then he better go and glorify God. If there are many other things that would better glorify God, why would the person want to go if indeed his heart's desire was to love and please God? I am not suggesting that a person should invent a rule against ever going to a basketball game and that such a rule would then save him. Rather, those who love God with all their hearts consider how best to glorify him. Therefore, it is not my practice to attend sporting events because my motive would not be to love, adore and please God. I know in my heart that there are many other things that would better glorify God...many other ways that I could best spend my time to bring God glory. But if he sends me I will go; I have no rule forbidding it. One time God did send me to a basketball game and as a result someone repented.
So it is by grace through faith that we are saved, but we are not exempt from obedience. Following a set of rules cannot save you from hell. Rather, those who try to be justified by observing a law (Gal. 5:4) don't end up obeying the truth (Gal. 5:7)! Christians are free from a "legalistic righteousness" that exalts a group of rules or laws, but we are not free from obedience to God-we are not free to indulge our flesh (Gal. 5:13). Rather, we are free from sin so that we may obey God (Romans 6:17-19). True Christians live by the Spirit and therefore do not fulfill the desires of their flesh (Gal. 5:16) because the flesh and its desires are crucified in those who belong to Christ (Gal. 5:24). And so it remains that only those who receive the grace spoken of in the Bible through faith will be saved. Praise be to God through Jesus Christ--the Savior "for all who obey him" (Heb. 5:9).